Saturday, April 29, 2017

Think Twice before You Find Fault with Modernity

By Robert Higgs

Modernity has never lacked for critics, people who see only regression from a nobler or more glorious past when men were men and women liked them that way. But for the economic or cultural historian, such an outlook is the sheerest balderdash.

If I had lived a thousand years ago, I would almost certainly have scratched out a precarious living, constantly on the edge of starvation, chronically ill, and culturally embedded in an inescapable wasteland of vicious error and destructive superstitions. I would never have thrilled to a song by Handel, a concerto grosso by Bach, a symphony by Beethoven or Brahms. I would never have watched any of Shakespeare’s plays or read any of his poetry. I would never have encountered even the intellectual gems that existed in the works of Aristotle or the classical Greek dramatists, never have learned Euclidean geometry, never have met with the ancient contributions to astronomy, because I would almost certainly have been illiterate and too far removed from any place that harbored learned people. And in those days, before the development of printing with movable type, the only means of spreading existing knowledge remained as always before the laborious copying of existing works by hand and the slow passage of copies from hand to hand. In short, life would have been poor, nasty, brutish, and short, even if not solitary.

People who glamorize the remote past practice a highly selective filtering of gold from a mountainous mass of ugly, toxic dirt. Life was hard even for those who sat in luxury above the masses and exploited them. They knew nothing of bacteriology; their children died in droves. The masses worked against heavy odds to extract enough from the soil to make their survival possible, and many failed to meet the test. Even if one doesn’t like industrialization and its consequences, one cannot escape the reality that what preceded modernity was materially, intellectually, and culturally close to zero for nearly everyone. Something is surely amiss when modern critics, enjoying all the material comforts and conveniences as well as the cultural amenities available at the push of a button, venture to dismiss modernity as if it were something even one in a thousand of them would give up.

The above originally appeared at the Independent Institute.


  1. Or, as PJ O'Rourke put it:
    "In general, life is better than it ever has been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: “dentistry” "

  2. And just think, all of this modernity has mainly developed and flourished under a predominantly Keynesian regime. Maybe Keynesianism isn't such a horrific thing after all, eh? Or maybe Keynesianism is like LSD, where things aren't exactly as they may seem to be, and after enough time passes the apparent reality all falls away, leaving you exposed to the true nature of things.

    1. Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy

    2. The point being: either Keynesian isn't all that bad or what we currently experience, to its fullest extent, as modernity will be transferred away to other more responsible societies, leaving us with only table scraps. Which is it? Because I would argue that if a very advanced technological and modern society can be built upon and permanently endure within a Keynesian regime to the fullest extent, then Keynesianism may not be as horrible as its detractors make it out to be. Which leaves us with the sobering possibility that much of what we now experience as modernity may be passing away from us sooner or later.

    3. Soooo... Life is good and the moon is made of green cheese, cheese is GOOD!!!

    4. How did the industrial revolution happen at all if Keynes wasn't around?

      You know what was around during this time? Bacon. Therefore bacon must not be bad for you if it was around for all of the societal advancements of the past 300 years and society has flourished. Therefore the doctors must be wrong about the negative effects of bacon.

    5. People eat more bacon than they ever have yet they live longer. Must be Bacon isn't bad for you.

    6. Neil, (re)read some Hoppe. It is most likely that what we have is in spite of Keynes, democratic-socialism, government, etc. The market still exists and is powerful.